CPELL Conference 2014 (Transforming Schools through Family and Community Engagement)

Yesterday, in the middle of a winter storm warning, I boarded the Red Line and headed north to Loyola University for a CPELL conference. CPELL (Chicagoland Partners for English Language Learners) is, “a federally funded Department of Education/Office of English Language Acquisition grant program (grant # T365Z12006) located within the Loyola University Chicago School of Education.” This year’s conference focused on the importance of parent-teacher-school-community relationships. The program, entitled Transforming Schools through Family and Community Engagement, was keynoted by Dr. Soo Hong.

To begin her presentation, Dr. Hong emphasized that teachers often approach parental engagement the same way: parent-teacher conferences, open houses, etc. This “one size fits all” approach is way outdated.  While she stressed the transformative power of education and strong relationships with parents, she made it clear that there is a distinctive difference between engaging parents to convey personal goals and engaging parents to develop collaborative relationships. With or without knowing it, teachers usually choose the former.

Dr. Hong then began to meticulously disassemble various myths about parental engagement. Addressing the myth that parental engagement only plays a tiny role in the day-to-day happenings in the classroom she compared teaching to baking a cake. Parental engagement may, in fact, be a small ingredient. But what happens if that small ingredient is representative of baking powder? The whole cake falls apart/taste disgusting. Parental engagement is necessary for a strong classroom community and a delicious cake.

Speaking directly to new teachers, Dr. Hong explained that often times those who are new to the field focus so much on what happens inside their classroom they forget about what happens outside of the schools’ doors. Again, she stressed that parental engagement is necessary to a successful teaching practice. Addressing her first few years as a public school teacher, Dr. Hong admitted she felt isolated. She was surrounded by new faces and still trying to navigate her way through the profession. Dr. Hong said that without knowing it, she had 40 or so allies waiting for her call: her students’ parents. She also went on to add that strong relationships with parents can help to sustain a teacher’s daily motivation and love for their practice. Strong allies can help to prevent burn out and improve teacher retention.

To provide a context for us in the audience, Dr. Hong shared the successes of the Logan Square neighborhood. Logan Square is a northwestern neighborhood of Chicago. Dr. Hong explained that to better involve parents in neighborhood schools, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association developed a Parent Mentor Program.

The program aimed at inviting parents who would otherwise return home after dropping their students off  to spend part of their day at the school. The goal was to allow parents experience what the school day was like: What were the classrooms like? How did the students and teachers interact? Parents would serve as aids in classrooms. During planning periods, parents and teachers get alone time to build strong relationships with one another. This would occur for a few hours in the morning every Monday through Thursday.

On Fridays, parents would get together and meet as a group to share stories, personal goals they aspire to, and support one another. These Friday sessions encouraged parents to see beyond their individual student and be welcomed into a more intimate community. As Dr. Hong emphasized, parent involvement is not an individual activity.

Using the Logan Square Parent Mentor Model, Dr. Hong outlined three essential take aways. Specifically, she said that family engagement should serve as a way to:

  1. Induct parents into schools. Parents often see little beyond the school’s entrance doors. They do not know our expectations for their students, the classroom, or the school. Schools are not an “English Only” facility: parents who are English Language Learners can participate just as much as fluent parents. Schools and districts can make efforts to differentiate grade level work. Those parents who are developing English language skills can spend time in earlier grades while those who are fluent can upper grades, where more complex language is used.
  2. Integration of parents into collaborative communities. Parent teacher conference  should become workshops with ALL parents. Instead of the usual 5-minute time slot where teachers explain grades, teachers should invite all parents to a collaborative session. During this session, the teacher can share their goals for students, outline classroom activities, and allow parents to engage in these same activities. Before the event is over, it is also important that the teachers asks for feedback from the parents. Those teachers who have enacted this approach also shared that these collaborative meetings also encouraged parent-to-parent connections. This often led to a shift in parental perspective. Instead of viewing involvement in the classroom as a way to improve their own student, they began to view the classroom as a larger community.
  3. Invest in the long-term leadership of parents. This final aspect relies heavily on district and school leadership. Work with your school’s administration to give parents an opportunity to have a strong voice. Enabling parents often leads to sustained parental and community involvement.

Although all of these points reasoned with me, I wanted to know more of the specifics. What does a successful classroom, school, district look like? Dr. Hong wrapped up her speech by outlining key approaches that help to ensure strong relationships with families:

  1. Make involvement parent friendly: Ask your parents when/where/how parent-teacher engagement should happen. Opening your schedule shows a willingness to meaningfully connect with parents.
  2. Focus on relationships. This is simple yet powerful. Don’t view parents as a small piece to a large puzzle, view them as the cornerstone.
  3. Move away from a deficit model if examining parents: Families contain funds of knowledge and rich histories that can be integrated into the classroom.
  4. Don’t accept low participation. Make consistent attempts to connect with all parents through multiple forms of communication.
  5. Move to a model that advocates for collaboration between parents and teachers. Demonstrate your appreciation for students’ lives outside of the classroom.

Overall, the CPELL Conference was extremely enlightening. While, as educators, we all look up to the Logan Square Parent Mentoring Program, the conference also provided advice to help build strong relationships with parents of family members of our students. Again, parent, family, and community involvement may be a small ingredient in a relatively large and complex cake, but it is representative of baking powder. Without this small ingredient, the whole thing would fall apart.

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